Posted in Backstory, Book launches, Book promotion

Making old manuscripts live again

An old manuscript gets a 21st century makeover.
An old manuscript gets a 21st century makeover.

Earlier this week Jennifer Alsever wrote a piece for CNN Money called “Guerrilla Marketing for Books.”  A cautionary tale for would-be authors, it tells the story of shrinking promotional budgets at traditional publishing houses and the lengths to which authors now must go to get their books to stand out from the ever-increasing numbers of both traditionally and self-published books.  The truth is, it has been ever thus – unless you are a big-name author.

One tactic mentioned in the story is of an author who commissioned a jewelry artist to make necklaces that are featured on her book’s cover as well as a new perfume based on one of her fictional characters. The amount of work and money involved for an author in doing this is staggering to consider.  This, however, reminded me of an event in the provenance of one of my recent ‘new’ books Confessions of a Failed Yuppie.  Stick with me for a few minutes!

If you’ve been reading Backstory for a few years or even months, you might have realized that the “backstory” I’m trying to tell is the anchor of my own experience in writing and publishing.  More than that, though, my objective is to explore the issues that are important to all of us who are more than passingly interested in reading – and writing.  Sometimes I rant about things that have annoyed me; sometimes I tell you a story of my experience.  Sometimes I tell you a real backstory to my writing: what inspired it, how it developed, what happened next.  This post is one of those true backstories.

In the early 1990’s I was on a rant about the Yuppie lifestyle.  So I decided to write a book about it – but rather than a non-fiction examination of the phenomenon, which would have been more akin to my writing experience at the time, I decided to write a novel – a satire of sorts.  I felt strongly, though, that I wanted it published no matter what, so I did what self-publishing authors did at that time, I sent it to a vanity publisher.  (For the working definition of a vanity publisher, you might want to surf back to last week’s post: The confusing world of 21st century publishing jargon: A glossary for writers).

In due course, a box full of hard-cover copies of Yuppie arrived on my doorstep.  What to do with them?  Those were the days before book promotion through online networking channels was de rigeur.  Indeed, there were no social media channels.  Just imagine such a world!  I decided that the first order of business would be to have a book launch.  But before the launch, I’d need some “merchandise.”

The old Yuppie cover and the mug: "I confess: I'm a failed yuppie" with a "reject" stamp!
The old Yuppie cover and the mug: “I confess: I’m a failed yuppie” with a “reject” stamp!

I created a design for the front of T-shirts and for mugs and had dozens of these pieces of paraphernalia created – all at my own expense, of course – and had them available on the day of the pary.  I also had a poster-sized blow-up of the cover of the book so that it could be the focal point of the party, next to the book-shaped cake that adorned the dining room table.  I then created a guest list and sent out invitations.

As parties go, the event was a great success.  We had door prizes of T-shirts that the guests obligingly sported and everyone went home with a signed copy of the book.

As the weeks went by, a number of the guests told me that they had enjoyed the book and when was I going to write another one?

The book, naturally enough, never sold.  Getting a self-published book reviewed in those days was not next to impossible, it was completely impossible.  And since there were no social networks available to promote it, short of taking out advertisements at great expense (I did that once) and going door-to-door with a pile of books (which didn’t sit well with my personality), the book would languish with thousands of others.  And so it did.  Until last year.

Writers have lots of finished and unfinished manuscripts hiding on their hard drives or taking up space in filing cabinets.  I know that most of us should toss most of it, but sometimes a manuscript draws us back and that’s how I felt about Yuppie.

So, I took out the hard-cover copy with its tattered edges and began to write rewrite the book.  It’s now a 21st century Yuppie story, and taking advantage of the digital advances, I decided to make it available once again.

Two decades in the making, Confessions of a Failed Yuppie lives again, and it starts with a definition of Yuppie:


“YUPPIE”: A Definition

Acronym for Young Urban Professional, usually occurring in a married pair (often male/female but not necessarily). Categorized as upper middle class or at least moving in that direction, ambitious, well-educated.  Characterized by excessive concerns about appearances.  Lightly narcissistic.  May have money or at least leverage.  But not necessarily. Normal habitat is the urban condo, sometimes the single-family dwelling of dubious heritage in a downtown area with a postage stamp for a yard, for which a bidding war took place prior to acquisition.  Yuppies with children often move to larger, more impressive dwellings.  Diet consists mainly of cocktails, organic kale and the latest gastronomic fad.  Would not be caught dead in a North-American-produced automobile brand.  Skis in winter, does hot yoga, plays squash (it’s making a come-back), and quietly brags all year round. Widely thought to have become extinct in the early 1990’s.  Not so much.

Maybe you’d like to read the rest.  Or not.

Posted in Backstory, Electronic Publishing, Publishing

When a publisher stops publishing: A writer takes control

So, it actually happens.  In fact, it happens more often than you might think.  And it has happened to me more than once, although I’m happy to say that not as often as it hasn’t!  Publishers go out of business for one reason or another.

The backstory:  Just like most serious writers out there, I had always gravitated toward traditional publishers.  They have the experience. They have the expertise.  They have the money. Well, maybe this last one is not a given.  In any case, until recently, it was probably the only route to being taken seriously as an author, although it has to be said that in some circles this is still the case.  Nevertheless, on almost a dozen occasions, I went through the long, drawn out process of querying, waiting, submitting, waiting, reviewing, waiting, editing, waiting and so it goes.  Eventually the books saw the light of day and I moved on.  But what happens to your property (your book that you slaved over for a chunk of your life) when your publisher ceases to publish?  Notwithstanding the legal issues of who owns copyright (you should), here’s one of my stories.

In 2008 I finally found a publisher for my memoir about being the mom to an elite ballet dancer who happened to be a boy in a hockey-mad country. The publisher was a small one with a years-long publishing record and the publisher loved the story.  When the book was published in the spring of 2009, I hosted the book launch, bringing my son, the ballet dancer, and one of his female partners from the National Ballet of Canada back to Halifax to entertain my captive audience.  Of course they came to see him dance, but had to listen to me talk about the book!  It was all very exciting.

Another Pointe of View: The Life & Times of a Ballet Mom didn’t really do very well, and the publisher was not into electronic publishing at all, so it was never available as a downloadable e-book, effectively cutting off a significant and increasing proportion of the potential readership.  The publisher sent me 100 books that I did not order, and they sat untouched in my office. (I’m sorry, but I’m not one of those people who are prepared to sell books out of the trunk of a car.  Nor do I think that people interested in ballet stories are likely to buy them that way.  But that’s just me.)

For the next two years I tried to get the publisher to send me a royalty statement: even if a book sells not a single copy, the author is entitled to see the statements, and in fact the publisher was bound by our contract to send me one periodically.  The truth, however, was as low as the sales might have been, I knew that there had been sales since several people mentioned to me that they had bought it and had enjoyed it.  So, imagine my surprise when I received a letter one day in 2011 indicating to me that I owed the publisher $1800.00!

The letter was from a woman who indicated she had been hired by the publisher to wind down operations – this was the first I had heard.  She told me that the owner of the company was ill and would be retiring thus freeing the authors from any further obligations to the publisher except for this unpaid bill for 100 copies of my book (how it amounted to that much money I’ll never know).  M y response was as follows: I most certainly was not going to pay any money for books I did not order – she could have them back if she was prepared to send money for the shipping; nor was I going to pay money to a publisher who had not once provided me with a royalty statement and was therefore in breach of contract.  I asked for all rights to revert to me and I wanted it in writing.  That letter came and not another word was uttered about money owning.  I guess threatening to have my lawyer in touch with them did the trick.

So there I was with the book that I might as well have published myself.  So, what do you do with a property that returns to you?

The newly designed cover for 'Ballet Mom' created for me by Tugboat Design
The newly designed cover for ‘Ballet Mom’ created for me by Tugboat Design

I decided that the evolution in publishing over the past several years provided me with a significant opportunity to revisit the book and see if I could garner a new audience for it.  At this point the remnants of the publisher were unable to provide me with the final, edited manuscript in editable form, so I took the uneditable form and had it converted, then began the process of updating the work.

I decided that the book might find an audience these days with the e-book readers.  I hired a book cover designer to come up with a more eye-catching cover, and then finished formatting the manuscript for electronic downloads.  Then I published myself it via Kindle Direct and began letting people know that it’s available.

It’s funny how things have changed over the past several years.  With Twitter and Facebook and other online possibilities, I had a request for a copy for review within a week from an international dance magazine who evidently had not heard of it before despite my publisher’s so-called promotion based on the marketing plan that I had delivered to her.

I think that my next step will be to make updated hard-copies available as well, thus making the ones currently available from online sellers (and from which authors receive not a single cent in royalties once a book is out of print) outdated and unwanted.

But what did I learn from all of this (and what could I offer as advice to other writers?)?

  • Don’t trust your publisher to market your book for you. (I already knew this, but the experience brought it into sharp focus.)
  • Publishers go out of business and leave you high and dry.
  • Authors need to keep a certain amount of control over their properties, even when signing contracts with traditional publishers.
  • If you have a well-edited manuscript (read: professionally edited), you can feel good about indie publishing.

But most importantly I learned that…

  • You can breathe new life into old work.

…and that’s what I’m going to do with several other books, published by traditional publishers before the electronic era whose rights have reverted to me.  Stay tuned!

ballet mom website buttn

Posted in Backstory, Book covers, Publishing, Self-Publishing

Finding a home for the next book: Traditional or self-publishing is the question

Film StripI received an email yesterday from my editor at the University of Toronto Press with the news that we’re now embarking on the cover design for my new book.  Although this is good news (I had been wondering where we were in the process after I sent him the final edits back in January before I went on vacation, it got me thinking yet again about the traditional book publishing process .

This marks the ninth time (ten if you count a second edition) that I’ve been through this traditional publishing process where control is largely given over to the publisher.  The truth is that I’ve been more or less happy with the outcomes as I look at them winking at me from the top shelf above me; the process, however, has not been without considerable frustration.  I’ve also gone the self-publishing route three times now, and I’m kind of at a crossroads.  I have a new book ready to make the rounds – and have queried a couple of agents already – but I’m still wondering if I should do it myself.

This reflection on my publishing adventures resulted this time from my editor’s simple statement in his email: “…Time and budgetary restraints being what they are, we’re unable to ask our designers to come up with a cover completely from scratch. Rather, it falls to you (and to me)…” and then we’re to send this to the so-called designers.  It seems to me that a designer should be doing the designing, and if he or she isn’t doing the designing, what in the world is he or she being paid to do?

This might seem to you to be the moment in time when I make that decision to move to self-publishing for that next book, but I’m also reeling from yet another telephone call from iUniverse – an attempt to sell me yet more services thinly disguised as a wonderful opportunity for me.

Here’s what happened earlier this week.

At dinner time one evening (they are always at dinner time when I’m feeling just ready to punch the next telemarketer who calls despite being on the do-not-call list) the phone rang.  The caller was a “marketing specialist” or consultant or manager or some such thing; iUniverse seems to either have an enormous staff or massive turnover since this is the third or fourth such person to whom I have evidently been assigned.  Several incarnations ago I asked them not to call me with marketing ideas ever again.

Grace Note Cover PaperbackIf you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that my avocation is writing historical fiction – I do love that research and the need to shed everyday life to get into the head of characters from long-ago times and places.  Grace Note: In Hildegard’s Shadow was published by iUniverse a couple of years ago now.  It was selected as an Editor’s Choice book (meaning that since I’d paid to have it professionally edited and I didn’t sound like a moron it would get this stamp), and thereafter chosen as a “Rising Star” (not sure how high up the scale of non-moronic a book has to be to receive this elevation).   All of the editing etc. that was done made the book more polished and professional to be sure, but it did not come cheap.  And make no mistake, every time anyone called after that to extol the virtues of my book, they were indeed trying to sell me services.  This time it was that it is so good that it should be a movie.  Would you be interested in having it shown to Thruline Entertainment?

I told him to send me an email and hung up (I was more polite than that, but that’s the edited version of the story).

The email arrived in due course (read; immediately).  Here’s what he said in part:

I called in earlier today to inform you that your book, “Grace Note” can be adapted into a motion picture.

Hollywood Coverage: Your book has all the elements Hollywood wants — an exciting plot, well-developed characters and fresh content — yet there’s still a crucial piece you need in order to be taken seriously by established entertainment executives.

We would like to know if you’d be interested to have your books presented to our newly acquired partner, THRULINE Entertainment. THRULINE is a Hollywood production company and they are basically looking for good books to adapt into a movie.

The contract has just been sealed last August and basically we want to impress our new partner. We don’t want to provide them with a “just-an-ordinary” material. We are putting our best foot forward because we want to prolong this contract.

If you’re interested, your book just needs a Script coverage in order for us to present this to production companies and producers. That is the basic tool that they would look for instead of reading the whole book.

He then went on to tell me that the two-part script coverage would be done by a professional who has done this before etc.  What he did not tell me was the price or any reference to the fact that he wants to sell me a service, but I knew that this was precisely what was happening.  And indeed research on Thruline uncovers a company with self-described ties to the Hollywood machine that works with self-publishing companies to part authors from their money.  Well, they didn’t’ say it that way but I can read between the lines!

Of course, if your book is really adaptable as a movie, you can send it to an agent who does this kind of thing.  Options on books can and are taken from the book itself.  And doesn’t it make sense that someone who is actually interested in adapting your book might actually have to read the book?  Yes, script “coverages” are done, but really?  I actually had an earlier book optioned and learned that the vast majority of optioned books never even make it to treatment phase.

The iUniverse price for this script coverage is $859.00.

This is what I said in my response to the email:

Thanks for this.  Don‘t bother telephoning me.  I’m not paying upwards of $900 for any more service from iUniverse.  If you think the book is good enough to be sold to “Hollywood” then I think you should be willing to put up the money for a percentage on the back end.  Otherwise, we have nothing to talk about.  I’m an accomplished writer – I can do this myself.

I think it’s time iUniverse took a different tack when it comes to ‘services’ for writers.

But call he did.  This time I didn’t answer. So where does this story lead me?  Well, this morning as I checked my Twitter feed I came across a link to a blog post titled “Publishing 101 – Money” on The Passive Voice blog whose author considers whether or not the price of self-publishing is worth it.  She and I agree that it is, but it does seem to me that there is a limit to what one should reasonably spend.

Self-publishing requires an author to be a writer, editor, interior book designer, cover designer, marketer and promoter.  So is this so different from traditional publishing these days?

When an editor at a traditional publishing house tells me that he is “unable to ask [their] designers to come up with a cover completely from scratch…” it seems that the two publish models are getting closer together.

So, am I any closer to a decision about my next book’s home?  Not really.